Oculus (2013)

Oculus 2

Oculus gets top marks for tension. A claustrophic supernatural horror from writer and director Mike Flanagan, the film is a lesson in the importance of tight storytelling. Karen Gillan, of Dr Who fame, stars as Kaylie, a troubled but driven woman obsessed with proving that the mirror that hung in her childhood home was responsible for the psychosis of her father, Alan, and her mother, Marie.

Two timelines seamlessly interlink to form the story, as we follow Kaylie and her brother Tim as both children and adults. We witness the twisted events in the past that led up to Alan’s murder of his own wife, alongside Kaylie and Tim’s vain attempts in the present day to destroy the mirror that caused them so much pain. That two equally haunting stories are told together with such confidence, is what secures the success of Oculus. The acting is a little off at times, with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan (the young Kaylie and Tim) definitely the stars of the show, and there is a little bit of frustration to be felt in the recklessness of adult Kaylie’s plan, which involves locking herself and her emotionally unstable brother in a house with the same piece of ghostly furniture that clearly drove her parents to furious insanity.

And yet, by the final act, the films proves itself worthy of praise, as it brings everything to a perfectly timed, blood-stained close, ending on a shocking note which ultimately strengthens the story’s power.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow should not work as well as it does. It stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, two actors who on paper promise the on-screen chemistry of a couple of potted plants. But, despite all the odds, these two make a powerfully entertaining duo. Matching oh-so-serious attitudes with a playfulness that lifts proceedings, the heroes of the film are consistently captivating.

I’d heard a couple of people liken this film to Source Code, a comparison which I can only put down to the fact that both play on the looping of short periods of time. In all other respects the films are quite different, and Edge of Tomorrow has, in my opinion, the far more compelling narrative. Set in the near future after an alien race named Mimics has taken over parts of Europe, the story follows cowardly Major William Cage (Cruise) who, by a twist of fate on the battlefield involving the consumption of Mimic blood, is doomed to repeat the same day of combat over and over. Desperate for answers, he seeks the help of Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a war hero who knows more than she lets on, and the two begin a mission to track down the ‘Omega’, the hive mind of the alien force threatening humanity.

The script handles its themes of recurrence with effortless style and buoyancy, never once deflating or deviating too far from its central concerns. Surprisingly in tune with each other, Cruise and Blunt display a refreshingly confident handling of their characters’ relationship, and happily steer clear of the trappings of banal Hollywood romance. Focused and comical, Edge of Tomorrow is the perfect blockbuster: one which matches its superb action scenes with spirited acting, and wraps it all up in a run-time which doesn’t overstay its welcome.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West

The humor of A Million Ways to Die in the West would be more suited to animation, where its persistently sarcastic and two-dimensional tone would be more at home. The film brandishes one lone joke of note, where lonely sheep farmer Albert Stark takes out a set of photos of himself and his ex-girlfriend to show his friends. In each one, taken at a different event such as the fair or a barn dance, the two of them stand in exactly the same position, with their heads pointed towards the camera, their arms rigidly at their sides, and austere expressions on their faces. This is funny, up until the point (seconds later to be exact) where the characters begin discussing how weird it would be to smile in a photo. “Imagine smiling in a photo”, “oh yeah, you’d look like a crazy person”. Thanks Seth, it’s good of you to make a point of an already obvious joke, just in case it had only been half-funny the first time.

And yet, even worse, is the way in which this one joke is then dragged through the Arizona dirt for the rest of the film’s duration. This kind of relentless circling and repetition may work in Family Guy, where awkwardness reigns supreme, but when used as a tool in live action, the effect is tiresome. Not sure of whether it wants to be an endless reel of postmodern gags, or an actual comedy-drama with genuine moments of tension and romance, A Million Ways to Die in the West slogs through its story with an inexorable amount strain, until the audience is left with a million examples of how not to tell a joke.

FINAL VERDICT: ★

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky

I don’t have a great long term memory. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I get easily distracted, I phase out, and I don’t always hear people (or is it listen to them?) when they talk to me. It’s for this reason, I suppose, that my memories from childhood of all of the Studio Ghibli films are so skewed. It’s been both strange and amusing to piece together what little I sometimes remember of each animation before I rewatch it in adulthood. For example, with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I know, not officially a Studio Ghibli film, but bear with me), all I recalled of it before I revisited it about a year ago was the steadfast and terrifying stare of the Ohmu, as herds of them trampled all in their path, charging in some unknown direction. For some reason, as a child watching these magnificent (but kind of gross) beasts, what had brought about their anger was of little importance to me. It was the anger – the blind rage – itself, condensed into the bright red of their eyes, which hypnotized me, and which remained with me as a potent image for years to come.

When it came to rewatching Laputa: Castle in the Sky last week, I found myself scrambling again for any memories I may have retained of the story from when I had last watched it, which I worked out must have been years ago. As I sat thinking about it, mulling over images of mossy robots, I was sure that most of the film’s action took place on the island of Laputa itself. As a child I had been completely transfixed by the magic of the greenery, the flowers, the rays of sunlight, and the birds. In my mind it was a film filled with moments of tranquility, of stillness. To those who know the film, you can imagine my surprise when I realised whilst sat watching, that the majority of the film (an hour and a half of the two hour run time) takes place away from the island. The story follows youngsters Pazu and Sheeta as they run from pirates, soldiers and secret agents, whilst simultaneously searching for a mysterious, floating utopia in the sky. Due to the greed and unflinching ambition of man, the two find themselves repeatedly chased and kidnapped. Unbeknownst to Pazu, Sheeta is the descendant of the people who once inhabited Laputa, and there are those who would stop at nothing in order to manipulate her ties to the island’s magic and gold.

What struck me most about the film on a rewatch was its many scenes of destructive violence. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my memory of the story was contradictory to what actually happens. I had recalled some darkness, a feeling of uneasiness that swelled beneath the surface of remembered images, such as Pazu and Sheeta taking leisurely strolls through the grass of Laputa. But I had not recollected any particular moments of brutality. This meant that scenes such as those at the fortress of Tedis, where a captured Laputan robot bursts free from its cell and sets fire to the surrounding buildings in an attempt to save Sheeta, only to be gunned down and set ablaze itself by a monstrous airship, were truly distressing. This may sound pathetic to some, but even the sequence early on where the pirates chase Pazu and Sheeta along a railway which towers over the valley below, causing the entire structure to collapse into smithereens, was saddening to watch. Everything was familiar, of course, as is usually the case when you rewatch a film that you thought you’d mostly forgotten. But the images shocked all the same.

And yet, there is something to be said for the shock of violence, especially when it is animated. Too much of film violence nowadays reaches its viewer with a dose of apathy, cloaked in a kind of coolness which numbs its effect. I’m not about to go on a rant about the high levels of violence in film, far from it. But I do think it’s important to remember what horror, what utter dismay and dread, should be provoked by the sight of aimless destruction. What Hayao Miyazaki does, and does so well, in this and many of his other films, is show violence and destruction as very much the product of humanity’s manipulation of technology and mistreatment of nature. For example, it’s no accident, I believe, that Muska’s airship Goliath resembles the Ohmu from Nausicaa, especially in night scenes, with its staring lights and bug-like body. Both Goliath and the Ohmu are not inherently evil (Goliath is a ship after all), but both have the potential to wreak absolute havoc on those around them if controlled by the wrong person. Choices and actions are vital in Castle in the Sky; choosing when to use violence, and when not to. Consequently, the line between nature and technology is blurred (see: Laputa’s robots caring for plants and animals when left to their own devices), and what remains as most horrifying is man’s inability to take responsibility and choose a nonviolent path.

By the end of the film, Pazu and Sheeta must make the ultimate choice. They call upon destruction in order to prevent further violence. And in a twist of fate, after all of the intricate mechanics and weaponry of the island have fallen to the bottom of the ocean, the stone that magically kept everything in the clouds rises up into the roots of the trees on top, and lifts nature even higher and further away from humanity. Less of a shedding of technology (the robots remain), and more of a shedding of man’s selfish influence, the island loses its bottom half, and in the credits we see it floating in space. I like to think of this as an odd reflection of my own memory of the movie from childhood: conveniently shedding all thoughts of violence, and instead deciding to focus on the image of two youngsters befriending a robot, walking through endless greenery, and basking in the beauty of their environment.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

I’m Back!

Just a quick post to say that I’m sorry for being absent from Screenmuse for so long! A combination of high work load and some personal issues meant that I found it hard to focus on reviewing.

I will definitely be carrying on with my zombie project soon (a rewatch of Night of the Living Dead is in order), but in the meantime I’ll be posting two or three reviews that I’ve written recently. I got a Cineworld Unlimited card at the start of June, and so I’m hoping to start reviewing a lot more current films than I used to. Watch this space!

nFMGn3E

Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead

Is there another horror genre which, over the years, has evolved and mutated as dramatically as the zombie movie? Compare 1932’s pre-code White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi, to the recent apocalyptic blockbuster World War Z, and it is both fascinating and bizarre that the two movies are of the same breed. Despite both featuring a white, American hero endeavouring to save a person/people from zombification, the films are at opposite ends of the undead spectrum. White Zombie is, outwardly, private, being about the acute struggles of a husband to free his wife from the clutches of a Voodoo sorcerer, whereas World War Z is more far-reaching in its ambitions (the clue is in the title). Where one is domestic, and deals in deeply rooted racial and sexual tensions, the other is apocalyptic, dealing in mass paranoia and catastrophe.

Zombie Comparison
Above: Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer observe a zombified Madge Bellamy in White Zombie (1932); the zombie horde in World War Z (2013)

Perhaps the reason that two films plucked from a single genre can be so wildly different, narratively and stylistically, is that the zombie film has always had a B-movie status, which in turn has allowed for a continual shift in focus and tone throughout the decades. With no distinct Western literary history, the zombie is a drifter, wandering endlessly through film without a concrete heritage. Even when traced back to Haiti and the crude stories that were carried over from the island to America by writers such as William Seabrook, it becomes clear that the living dead are cinematic monsters born out of anxieties towards the unknowable and unexplainable “foreign”, and therefore doomed to occupy the space between fact and fiction. Nameless, faceless, and directionless, the undead on screen are far from the regal monsters of Universal Studios (no respected actor ever plays a zombie; they play the character killing them or controlling them). And yet, it is this anonymity which grants these rotting revenants such power. Lumbering without personality, they become blank canvases on which to project a varying number of preoccupations. Relatable, either singularly or en masse, to themes of gender and female autonomy, the dissolving of the family unit, spirituality and religion, relentless war and violence, and new technology and scientific advancement, the zombie is a meaty, bloody vessel for social and political anxieties.

From the Voodoo of films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to the game changing “Dead” series from George A. Romero, to the video game based Resident Evil films, the living dead have been twisted every which way to suit the current cultural climate. In the 30s and 40s, following the publication of Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929), race and gender were at the forefront of the zombie movie. Western audiences were fed an endless run of cheaply made, “exotic” stories set on various islands in the Caribbean, which often centered on suspicious-looking, European men manipulating Haitian “black magic” for selfish means. In White Zombie, for example, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) is called upon by plantation owner Charles Beaumont to cast a Voodoo spell over the woman of his dreams, Madeline, in order that he may steal her from her husband. And in 1941’s King of the Zombies, Austrian scientist Dr. Sangre is discovered using Voodoo to gain information from an American admiral. As with Madeline’s character, white women often found themselves the victims of zombification, transformed in to mute figures of beauty, and black characters were used either for laughs (see: Willie Best in The Ghost Breakers [1940], and Mantan Moreland in The King of the Zombies), or to deliver wooden one-liner “warnings” to unassuming, white Americans. There existed a glaringly obvious paranoia surrounding anything considered “foreign”, which resulted in stories occupied solely with the containing and subduing of any unfamiliar or “sinister” presence. Western writers took their time to explain away Voodoo with scientific jargon, and the American always saved the day by destroying the European threat. The zombie in the years of the Great Depression leading up to the Second World War often stood as the consequence of foreign manipulation, and was a fitting monster, cold and detached, for those who had lost their jobs and livelihoods in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Zombie Comparison 2
Above: Mantan Moreland as Jeff in King of the Zombies (1941); Belu Lugosi (on the right) as Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932)

Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) made a refreshing change from the string of stagnant stories which had come before it. Mocking the desperate search for knowledge and control in the face of the unknown that had come to characterize the early zombie movie, this RKO picture from producer Val Lewton eschewed the safety of science and reason, and replaced it with confusion. The story follows Betsy Connell, a nurse who arrives on an island in the West Indies in order to care for Jessica, the ailing wife of plantation owner Paul Holland. Upon her arrival, she senses that something is amiss, and begins to suspect that Jessica is the victim of some sort of Voodoo curse. This is never proven, however, and the film spends its time flitting between various narrative threads which never tie up, all the while undermining a prioritizing of scientific explanation. No answers are provided here; the film ends with Jessica dead, and the perpetrator of a suspected crime never revealed. The audience is left baffled, wondering, along with Betsy, whether Jessica was ever a “zombie” to begin with. Not only does this film center on the conflict between reason and fancy that results from attempting to rationalize the unknown, it also proves that such a conflict is a pointless one. I Walked with a Zombie should have signaled the end of ignorant tales of appropriated Voodoo, but unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1968, with Romero’s ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead, that the monster was to be given an entirely new lease of life.

In the meantime, the few 50s zombie films that were being made had begun to stray from Voodoo in order to focus on alien invasion narratives born out of Cold War fears. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (not technically a zombie movie), and Invisible Invaders (1959), played up to fears of Communist invasion and brainwashing through their presentations of either mass infection or zombification spreading throughout society, resulting in loss of personal autonomy on a grand scale. These movies may have not been very good, but what they did do was change the way in which audiences viewed the cinematic zombie. Being zombified was no longer a temporary mental state that could be rectified with the removal of an evil Voodoo master; it was a much more gruesome affair which, by the decade’s end, was tinged with fears over the physical and social effects of nuclear war. In the space of a few years, the zombie as a movie monster had completely transformed, both physically and culturally. Not only had it become more hideous in appearance thanks to a new focus on the horrifying corporeality of the re-animated corpse, but it had also become tied to the idea of the apocalypse: of an uncontrollable, zombie horde. Zombies attacking in great numbers had been seen before in 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, but it had not been a prevalent motif until now.

Zombie Comparison 3
Above: Betsy looks on at Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie (1943); the zombies in Invisible Invaders (1956)

The influence of these alien zombie flicks becomes even clearer when watching the news footage within one of the most important films in zombie movie history. Night of the Living Dead (1968), the horror movie which changed the way that we think about the zombie, at one point sees a news reporter on television quizzing scientists on “the explosion of the Venus probe”, which he believes could have caused “mutations” through radiation. Early script ideas for the film even saw a story heavily featuring aliens. Anxieties over the Cold War had heightened following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and it was obvious that the zombie was fast becoming the perfect embodiment of a collective human fear in the face of a great and looming threat of violence.

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Keep checking Screenmuse for the next installments of Zombies on Film.

Part 2: Zombies on Film: Romero’s Homegrown Ghouls

American Zombie (2007)

American Zombie

I went in to American Zombie knowing nothing about it, except that it was a mockumentary. If I’m honest, I was anticipating a very quiet, indie film that had big ideas but mediocre execution. How wrong I was. The last thing I was prepared for was to be scared by this story, which left me in a state of confused awe. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that I’ve been watching so many movies about the living dead of late, but American Zombie really impressed in areas where I thought it would fail.

The film follows real-life filmmaker Grace Lee, and John Solomon, who team up to document the lives of a small and unrecognised zombie community in Los Angeles. They wish to give the “revenants” a voice, and follow them to their homes and work, where they observe their everyday routines and ask them questions about their hobbies and interests. What starts out as a very peace-loving and low-key affair, soon becomes a bit twisted when Lee and Solomon try to gain access to a festival for the undead, set up by zombie rights activist Joel. After being told that there are “no humans allowed”, Solomon begins to suspect that his subjects have something to hide.

The most interesting thing about American Zombie, is its re-imagining of the zombie myth. In the film, its undead community are the victims of a mysterious virus which lies dormant until death, at which point it reanimates the brain and body. When these people “come back”, they have little to no memory of their past lives, and can be placed, depending on their behavior, in to one of three zombie categories: feral, low functionality, or high functionality. The high functionality zombies can easily pass as humans, except for the fact that their bodies are slowly rotting from the inside. They have no appetite for human flesh, and exhibit no undisciplined rage. Some manage to find a job and a place to live, others are forced to walk the streets in a miserable daze.

As a minority that are wrongfully ignored, these zombies, treated with disdain and refused the right to vote and marry, are rightfully angry at their society. As the film goes on, we see the subjects display more and more bitterness, until eventually the film reaches a chilling and bloody climax. The tone is turned suddenly from observational to eerie, as the filmmakers begin to lose the “plot”, and loyalties and sympathies are tested as the zombies establish a stronger, more combative front against their oppressors.

With good acting and understated makeup, American Zombie is an example of the indie zombie movie done right. Believable and sympathetic characters, an engaging atmosphere, and thrilling twists make this a worthwhile watch for any zombie fan who wants a change from messy apocalypse movies.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

Best Zombie Films (1)

I’ve just had a “Best Zombie Films” list published over at Greatest Films UK. Take a look and let me know what you think about my choices/order in the comments section! (:

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

“The dead don’t walk around, except in very bad paperback novels”

A Spanish-Italian production shot in both England and Italy, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, (a.k.a Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Don’t Open the Window) reveals its main intentions within its first few minutes, as it treats its audience to shots of a smog-filled city, ominously zooming in on power stations, smoking chimneys, and disinterested drivers stuck in traffic jams. George, an antique dealer in Manchester, is leaving his hometown to travel to the Lake District, and the air he leaves behind him is obviously thick with fatigue. This is the 70s, and director Jorge Grau makes it clear from the get-go that the hippie dream has been replaced with listlessness and cynicism. At one point a female streaker runs across a busy road making the peace sign. Barely anyone looks her way.

On his journey toward greener pastures, George runs in to Edna after she accidentally backs in to his motorbike at a petrol station, and the two are left with no option but to travel together. They lose their way, and whilst asking for directions in a field, George happens upon the Department of Agriculture who are working with a new anti-pest machine which kills bugs using radiation. The presence of the industrial in the countryside is a clear comment on the state of the world at present, as the workers seem oblivious to any damage they may be causing mankind. Of course, it is this unnatural technology, tainting the earth, which begins to raise the dead, and the film is characterized by a bitterness and distrust of all authoritative and legal institutions. The police are ignorant and regressive, and the doctors are unwilling to help. It is left to George and Edna to act as humanity’s last hope.

With some awful dubbing and bad acting, the film could easily be dismissed as yet another piece of zombie fodder, and yet its ability to be both bitingly satirical and downright gory, four years before Romero’s comic book-esque Dawn of the Dead hit the screens, is the reason it is still regarded as one of the best of its genre. It is a well-paced, engaging, funny, and creative horror, that takes the time to re-imagine elements of the zombie myth without twisting things too far. For example, its undead do not show up on camera, have red eyes, and can reanimate other dead bodies by touching them with the blood of the living. Small details such as these are what make The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue memorable.

The finale takes place in a hospital as the recently reanimated dead hunt the living in gruesome force. Pair this with a decidedly sombre conclusion where Edna turns into a zombie and a still-living George gets shot (a fate reminiscent of Ben’s in Night of the Living Dead), and it’s easy to see how this ending may have inspired the final hospital scenes of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. What is perhaps most interesting about the film, however, is its sudden turn of allegiances as its main “good” characters are all removed and the audience begins to wish a zombie apocalypse upon the remaining humans. This shift is reflective of an overall desire for an overthrowing of corruption. Would it be so bad if the world were to fall to pieces? asks Grau, as we see George return from the dead thanks to the newly repaired, radioactive pest-killing machine, to seek vengeance on a fraudulent police Sergeant. Thanks to brilliant story-telling, we are now on the side of the zombie, staring out at a world full of greed and cold disregard. And we desire its destruction as much as the flesh-hungry living dead.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked With A Zombie

What characterises I Walked with a Zombie, right from its opening scene of two distant silhouettes walking along an unnamed beach, is its air of mystery. Set on the fictitious Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian, its story feeds on the speculation of its characters and audience, ultimately leaving them both with more questions than when they arrived.

Frances Dee plays nurse Betsy Connell, who, having been sent to the West Indies to care for the ailing wife of a plantation owner, finds herself at the center of an obscure scandal. Jessica, her patient, is a mute and unresponsive “mental case” (the characters’ words, not my own), and Betsy is told repeatedly that there is no hope of her recovery. Paul Holland, Jessica’s husband, seems distant and suspicious, and we soon find out that his half-brother, Wesley, was in love with his sister-in-law and had planned to run away with her before she fell ill. The finger is therefore pointed at Paul from the beginning: how far would he have gone to keep Jessica on the island, and away from Wesley? Mrs Rand, the brothers’ mother, also seems to keep her fair share of secrets. Who, then, is responsible for Jessica’s deterioration? Is she the victim of a Voodoo curse, or of a mental illness?

Similarly to 1932’s White Zombie, this RKO Picture from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur is interested in a highly sexualized woman as the victim of zombification, except that here the cause of her “condition” is unclear. There is no Bela Lugosi with staring eyes and a “zombie grip” to be a melodramatic source of evil voodoo magic (as much as the poster would have you think otherwise). Instead, there is a torn up family with mixed motives and ambiguous passions, whose unwillingness to be open and honest about the past causes confusion. No answer is ever given as to why Jessica is in her current state, and this final uncertainty subtly mocks a typically western obsession with securing scientific explanations for every open ended question. The entire film is shrouded in shadows, and this impenetrable darkness represents the void which the audience faces as they realise that there are no final revelations at the end of this story.

As is to be expected, the film’s treatment of Voodoo is naive, and the fact that Mrs Rand is able to so easily fool the island’s inhabitants into believing that she is the voice of a Voodoo priest is bordering on insulting. However, it is I Walked with a Zombie‘s steadfast refusal to rationalize, and therefore neutralize, its walking dead, which raises it above the level of mindless zombie-fare.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2